Orion (constellation)

Orion (constellation)
List of stars in Orion
Abbreviation Ori
Genitive Orionis
Pronunciation /ɒˈraɪ.ən/
Symbolism Orion, the Hunter
Right ascension 5 h
Declination +5°
Quadrant NQ1
Area 594 sq. deg. (26th)
Main stars 7
Stars with planets 7
Stars brighter than 3.00m 8
Stars within 10.00 pc (32.62 ly) 8
Brightest star Rigel (β Ori) (0.12m)
Nearest star GJ 3379
(17.51 ly, 5.37 pc)
Messier objects 3
Meteor showers Orionids
Chi Orionids
Visible at latitudes between +85° and −75°.
Best visible at 21:00 (9 p.m.) during the month of January.
click on to see large image

Orion, often referred to as The Hunter, is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous, and most recognizable constellations in the night sky.[1] Its name refers to Orion, a hunter in Greek mythology.



Orion as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825.

Orion includes the prominent asterism known as the Belt of Orion: three bright stars in a row. Surrounding the belt at roughly similar distances are four bright stars, which are considered to represent the outline of the hunter's body. Descending from the 'belt' is a smaller line of three stars (the middle of which is in fact not a star but the Orion Nebula), known as the hunter's 'sword'.

In artistic renderings, the surrounding constellations are sometimes related to Orion: he is depicted standing next to the river Eridanus with his two hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor, fighting Taurus the bull. He is sometimes depicted hunting Lepus the hare. He also sometimes is depicted to have a lion in his hand.

There are alternative ways to visualize Orion. From the Southern Hemisphere, Orion is oriented differently, and the belt and sword are sometimes called the Saucepan, or Pot in Australia/New Zealand. Orion's Belt is called Drie Konings (Three Kings) or the Drie Susters (Three Sisters) by Afrikaans speakers in South Africa,[2] and are referred to as les Trois Rois (the Three Kings) in Daudet's Lettres de Mon Moulin (1866). The appellation Driekoningen (the Three Kings) is also often found in 17th- and 18th-century Dutch star charts and seaman's guides. The same three stars are known in Spain and Latin America as "Las Tres Marías" (Spanish for "The Three Marys").

Orion can be easily seen in the night sky from November to February of each year - late fall to winter in the Northern Hemisphere, late spring to summer in the Southern Hemisphere. In the tropics (less than about 8° from the equator) the constellation transits at the zenith.

In the period May–July (summer in the Northern Hemisphere, winter in the Southern Hemisphere) Orion is in the daytime sky and thus not visible at most latitudes. However for much of Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere's winter months, the Sun is below the horizon even at midday. Stars (and thus Orion) are then visible at twilight for a few hours around local noon, low in the North. At the same time of day at the South Pole itself (Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station), Rigel is only 8° above the horizon and the Belt sweeps just along it. In the Southern Hemisphere's summer months, when Orion is normally visible in the night sky, the constellation is actually not visible in Antarctica because the sun does not set at that time of year south of the Antarctic Circle.[3][4]

Navigational aid

Using Orion to find stars in neighbor constellations

Orion is very useful as an aid to locating other stars. By extending the line of the Belt southeastward, SiriusCMa) can be found; northwestward, AldebaranTau). A line eastward across the two shoulders indicates the direction of ProcyonCMi). A line from Rigel through Betelgeuse points to Castor and PolluxGem and β Gem). Additionally, Rigel is part of the Winter Circle. Sirius and Procyon, which may be located from Orion by following imaginary lines (see map), also are points in both the Winter Triangle and the Circle.[5]

Notable features


  • Betelgeuse, known alternatively by its Bayer designation Alpha Orionis, is a massive M-type red supergiant star nearing the end of its life. When it explodes it will even be visible during the day. It is the second brightest star in Orion, and is a semiregular variable star.[6] It serves as the "right shoulder" of the hunter it represents (assuming that he is facing the observer), and is the eighth brightest star in the night sky.[7]
  • Rigel, which is also known as Beta Orionis, is a B-type blue supergiant that is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Similar to Betelguese, Rigel is fusing heavy elements in its core and will pass its supergiant stage soon (on an astronomical timescale), either collapsing in the case of a supernova or shedding its outer layers and turning into a white dwarf. It serves as the left foot of Orion, the hunter.[8]
  • Bellatrix was designated Gamma Orionis by Johann Bayer, but is known colloquially as the "Amazon Star". It is the twenty-second brightest star in the night sky.[9] Bellatrix is considered a B-type blue giant, though it is too small to explode in a supernova. Bellatrix's luminosity is derived from its high temperature rather than its radius,[10] a factor that defines Betelgeuse.[6] Bellatrix serves as Orion's left shoulder.[10]
  • Mintaka garnered the name Delta Orionis from Bayer, even though it is the faintest of the three stars in Orion's Belt. It is a multiple star system, composed of a large B-type blue giant and a more massive O-type white star. The Mintaka system constitutes an eclipsing binary variable star, where the eclipse of one star over the other creates a dip in brightness. Mintaka is the westernmost of the three stars of Orion's Belt.[11]
  • Alnilam was named Epsilon Orionis, a consequence of Bayer's wish to name the three stars in Orion's Belt (from north to south) in alphabetical order. Alnilam is a B-type blue supergiant; despite being nearly twice as far from the Sun as Mintaka and Alnitak, the other two belt stars, its luminosity makes it nearly equal in magnitude. Alnilam is losing mass quickly, a consequence of its size;[12] it is approximately four million years old.[12]
  • Alnitak was designated Zeta Orionis by Bayer, and is the easternmost star in Orion's Belt. It is a triple star some 800 light years distant, with the primary star being a hot blue supergiant and the brightest class O star in the night sky.
  • Saiph was designated Kappa Orionis by Bayer, and serves as Orion's right foot. It is of a similar distance and size to Rigel, but appears much fainter, as its hot surface temperature (46,000°F or 26,000°C) causes it to emit most of its light in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.

Of the lesser stars, Hatsya (or Iota Orionis) forms the tip of Orion's sword, whilst Meissa (or Lambda Orionis) forms Orion's head. In common with many other bright stars, the names Betelgeuse, Rigel, Saiph, Alnitak, Mintaka, Alnilam, Hatsya and Meissa originate from the Arabic language.

Solar Radii Apparent
(L Yrs)
  Betelgeuse     667       0.43    643
  Rigel     78       0.18    772
  Bellatrix     7.0       1.62    243
  Mintaka     ?       2.23 (3.2/3.3) / 6.85 / 14.0    900
  Alnilam     26       1.68    1359
  Alnitak     ?       1.70/~4/4.21    800
  Saiph     11       2.06    724


Orion constelation PP3 map PL.jpg
Orion Constellation Map
Orion Belt.jpg
Closeup Image of Orion Belt

Orion's Belt or The Belt of Orion is an asterism in the constellation Orion. It consists of the three bright stars: ζ Ori (Alnitak), ε Ori (Alnilam), and δ Ori (Mintaka). Alnitak is approximately 800 light years away from earth and, including ultraviolet radiation, which the human eye cannot see, Alnitak is 100,000 times more luminous than the Sun.[13] Alnilam is approximately 1340 light years away from Earth, shines with magnitude 1.70, and with ultraviolet light is 375,000 times more luminous than the Sun.[14] Mintaka is 915 light years away and shines with magnitude 2.21. It is 90,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is a double star: the two orbit each other every 5.73 days.[15] Looking for Orion's Belt in the night sky is the easiest way to locate the constellation. In the Northern Hemisphere, Orion's Belt is best visible in the night sky during the month of January around 9:00 pm, when it is approximately around the local meridian.[16]

The same three stars are known in Latin America as "The Three Marys."[17] They also mark the northern night sky when the sun is at its lowest point, and were a clear marker for ancient timekeeping.

Richard Hinckley Allen lists many folk names for the Belt of Orion. The English ones include: Jacob's Rod or Staff; Peter's Staff; the Golden Yard-arm; the L, or Ell; the Ell and Yard; the Yard-stick, and the Yard-wand; the Ellwand; Our Lady's Wand; the Magi; the Three Kings; the Three Marys; or simply the Three Stars.

The passage "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?" is found in the Bible's Book of Job.

The Malay called the stars in belt as Bintang Tiga Beradik (Three Brother Star).

The Finns call the Orion's belt and the stars below it as Väinämöisen viikate (Väinämöinen's scythe)

Meteor showers

Around October 21 each year the Orionid meteor shower reaches its peak. Coming from the border with the constellation Gemini as many as 20 meteors per hour can be seen.

Deep sky objects

Hanging from Orion's belt is his sword, consisting of the multiple stars θ1 and θ2 Orionis, called the Trapezium and the Orion Nebula (M42). This is a spectacular object which can be clearly identified with the naked eye as something other than a star. Using binoculars, its swirling clouds of nascent stars, luminous gas, and dust can be observed.

Another famous nebula is IC 434, the Horsehead Nebula, near ζ Orionis. It contains a dark dust cloud whose shape gives the nebula its name.

Besides these nebulae, surveying Orion with a small telescope will reveal a wealth of interesting deep-sky objects, including M43, M78, as well as multiple stars including Iota Orionis and Sigma Orionis. A larger telescope may reveal objects such as Barnard's Loop and the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), as well as fainter and tighter multiple stars and nebulae.

All of these nebulae are part of the larger Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, which is located approximately 1,500 light-years away and is hundreds of light-years across. It is one of the most intense regions of stellar formation visible in our galaxy.

Cultural significance

Star formation in the constellation Orion as photographed in infrared by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.


Ancient Near East

The Babylonian star catalogues of the Late Bronze Age name Orion MULSIPA.ZI.AN.NA, "The Heavenly Shepherd" or "True Shepherd of Anu" - Anu being the chief god of the heavenly realms.[18] The Babylonian constellation was sacred to Papshukal and Ninshubur, both minor gods fulfilling the role of 'messenger to the gods'. Papshukal was closely associated with the figure of a walking bird on Babylonian boundary stones, and on the star map the figure of the Rooster was located below and behind the figure of the True Shepherd.[19]

The stars of Orion were associated with Osiris, the sun-god of rebirth and afterlife, by the ancient Egyptians.[20][21][22]

Orion has also been identified with the last Egyptian Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty called Unas who, according to the Pyramid Texts, became great by eating the flesh of his mortal enemies and then slaying and devouring the gods themselves. This was based on a belief in contiguous magic whereby consuming the flesh of great people would bring inheritance of their power.[21] After devouring the gods and absorbing their spirits and powers, Unas journeys through the day and night sky to become the star Sabu, or Orion.[20] The Pyramid Texts also show that the dead Pharaoh was identified with the god Osiris, whose form in the stars was often said to be the constellation Orion.[20]

The Bible mentions Orion three times, naming it "Kesil" (כסיל, brute, strong): Job 9:9 ("He is the maker of the Bear and Orion"), Job 38:31 ("Can you loosen Orion`s belt?"), and Amos 5:8 ("He who made the Pleiades and Orion"). In ancient Aram, the constellation was known as Nephila, Orion's descendants were known as Nephilim.[23]

Greco-Roman antiquity

Orion in the 9th century Leiden Aratea.

Orion's current name derives from Greek mythology, in which Orion was a gigantic hunter of primordial times.[24] Some of these myths relate to the constellation; one story tells that Orion was killed by a giant scorpion; the gods raised him and the Scorpion to the skies, as Scorpio/Scorpius. Yet other stories say Orion was chasing the Pleiades.[25]

The constellation is mentioned in Horace's Odes, Homer's Odyssey (Book 5, line 283) and Iliad, and Virgil's Aeneid (Book 1, line 535)

In medieval Muslim astronomy, Orion was known as al-jabbar "the giant".

Asian antiquity

In China, Orion was one of the 28 lunar mansions Sieu (Xiu) (宿). Known as Shen (參), literally meaning "three", it is believed to be named so for the three stars located in Orion's belt. (See Chinese constellations)

The Chinese character 參 (pinyin shēn) originally meant the constellation Orion (Chinese: 參宿; pinyin: shēnxiù); its Shang dynasty version, over three millennia old, contains at the top a representation of the three stars of Orion's belt atop a man's head (the bottom portion representing the sound of the word was added later).[26]

The Rig Veda refers to the Orion Constellation as Mriga (The Deer).[27]

European folklore

In old Hungarian tradition, "Orion" is known as (magic) Archer (Íjász), or Scyther (Kaszás), by recently rediscovered myths he is rather called Nimrod (Hungarian "Nimród"), the biggest hunter, father of the twins Hun and Hungarian (Hungarian "Hunor" and "Magor"). The "π" and "o" stars (on upper right) form together the reflex bow or the lifted scythe. In other Hungarian traditions, "Orion's belt" is known as "Judge's stick" (Bírópálca).[28] In Scandinavian tradition, "Orion's belt" was known as Frigg's Distaff (Friggerock) or Freyja's distaff.[29]

New World

The Seri people of northwestern Mexico call the three stars in the belt of this constellation Hapj (a name denoting a hunter) which consists of three stars: Hap (mule deer), Haamoja (pronghorn), and Mojet (bighorn sheep). Hap is in the middle and has been shot by the hunter; its blood has dripped onto Tiburón Island.[30]

Contemporary symbolism

The imagery of the belt and sword has found its way into popular western culture, for example in the form of the shoulder insignia of the 27th Infantry Division of the United States Army during both World Wars, probably owing to a pun on the name of the division's first commander, Major General John F. O'Ryan.

The defunct film distribution company Orion Pictures used the constellation as its logo.


Orion is presently located on the celestial equator, but it will not always be so located due to the effects of precession of the Earth's axis. Orion lies well south of the ecliptic, and it only happens to lie on the celestial equator because the point on the ecliptic that corresponds to the June solstice is close to the border of Gemini and Taurus, to the north of Orion. Precession will eventually carry Orion further south, and by AD 14,000 Orion will be far enough south that it will become invisible from the latitude of Great Britain.[31]

Further in the future, Orion's stars will gradually move away from the constellation due to proper motion. However, Orion's brightest stars all lie at a large distance from the Earth on an astronomical scale—much farther away than Sirius, for example. Orion will still be recognizable long after most of the other constellations—composed of relatively nearby stars—have distorted into new configurations, with the exception of a few of its stars eventually exploding as supernovae. For example, Betelgeuse, the "right shoulder," is so large and old that it may explode and disappear within a few thousand years.

See also


  1. ^ Dolan, Chris. "Orion". http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/constellations/Orion.html. Retrieved 2007-10-05. 
  2. ^ Three Kings and the Cape Clouds at psychohistorian.org
  3. ^ A Beginner's Guide to the Heavens in the Southern Hemisphere
  4. ^ The Evening Sky Map Southern Hemisphere Edition
  5. ^ Orion Constellation
  6. ^ a b "Variable Star of the Month, Alpha Ori". Variable Star of the Season. American Association of Variable Star Observers. 2000. http://www.aavso.org/vstar/vsots/1200.shtml. Retrieved 2009-02-26. [dead link]
  7. ^ "Betelgeuse". Chris Dolan's Constellations. University of Wisconsin. 2009. http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/hr/2061.html. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  8. ^ "Rigel". Jim Kaler's Stars. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Campus. 2009. http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~jkaler/sow/rigel.html. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  9. ^ "Bellatrix". Chris Dolan's Constellations. University of Wisconsin. 2009. http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/hr/1790.html. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  10. ^ a b "Bellatrix". Jim Kaler's Stars. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Campus. 2009. http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~jkaler/sow/bellatrix.html. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  11. ^ "Mintaka". Jim Kaler's Stars. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Campus. 2009. http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~jkaler/sow/mintaka.html. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  12. ^ a b "Alnilam". Jim Kaler's Stars. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Campus. 2009. http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~jkaler/sow/alnilam.html. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  13. ^ http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/alnitak.html
  14. ^ http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/alnilam.html
  15. ^ http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/mintaka.html
  16. ^ http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/constellations/Orion.html
  17. ^ Lenda de Órion e as Três Marias
  18. ^ John H. Rogers, "Origins of the ancient contellations: I. The Mesopotamian traditions", Journal of the British Astronomical Association 108 (1998) 9–28
  19. ^ Babylonian Star-lore by Gavin White, Solaria Pubs, 2008, page 218ff & 170
  20. ^ a b c The Oxford Guide: Essential Guide to Egyptian Mythology, Edited by Donald B. Redford, p302-307, Berkley, 2003, ISBN 0-425-19096-X
  21. ^ a b Mackenzie, Donald A. (1907). "Triumph of the Sun God". Egyptian Myth and Legend. Gresham Pub. Co.. pp. 167–168. ISBN 0517259125. http://www.sacred-texts.com/egy/eml/eml15.htm. 
  22. ^ http://www.coldwaterschools.org/lms/planetarium/myth/orion.html; http://www.constellationsofwords.com/Constellations/Orion.html
  23. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible[citation needed]
  24. ^ Star Tales – Orion
  25. ^ Chandra :: Photo Album :: Constellation Orion
  26. ^ 漢語大字典 Hànyǔ Dàzìdiǎn (in Chinese), 1992 (p.163). 湖北辭書出版社和四川辭書出版社 Húbĕi Cishu Chūbǎnshè and Sìchuān Cishu Chūbǎnshè, re-published in traditional character form by 建宏出版社 Jiànhóng Publ. in Taipei, Taiwan; ISBN 957-813-478-9
  27. ^ Holay, P. V.. "Vedic astronomers". Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India 26: 91–106. Bibcode 1998BASI...26...91H. 
  28. ^ Toroczkai-Wigand Ede : Öreg csillagok ("Old stars"), Hungary (1915) reedited with Műszaki Könyvkiadó METRUM (1988).
  29. ^ Schön, Ebbe. (2004). Asa-Tors hammare, Gudar och jättar i tro och tradition. Fält & Hässler, Värnamo. p. 228.
  30. ^ Moser, Mary B.; Stephen A. Marlett (2005) (in Spanish and English). Comcáac quih yaza quih hant ihíip hac: Diccionario seri-español-inglés. Hermosillo, Sonora and Mexico City: Universidad de Sonora and Plaza y Valdés Editores. http://lengamer.org/admin/language_folders/seri/user_uploaded_files/links/File/DiccionarioSeri2005.pdf. 
  31. ^ http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/moonkmft/Articles/Precession.html


External links

Coordinates: Sky map 05h 30m 00s, +00° 00′ 00″

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